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By Nathan Bierma


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'LORD, WHEN DID WE SEE YOU A PANHANDLER?'

After two and a half years of living in the middle of a big city, I still feel funny every time I walk by a panhandler (or, as Politically Correct Bedtime Stories author James Finn Garner put it, an "individual supporting himself outside the reigning capitalist paradigm"). My cognitive dissonance comes in many varieties. Give panhandlers money, and you might be subsidizing a destructive habit. Give them gift certificates or groceries, as my wife and I have on occasion, and you're subsidizing alternatives to church-run and church-affiliated social services. Give them a business card for one such religious social service agency, as a friend of mine does, and it can seem impersonal and indirect. Give them a warm greeting and nothing else, and you give them false hope that you'll make a donation. Ignore them, and you share in an inhuman oblivion to their existence. I just can't imagine Jesus doing what a friend of mine calls "the thousand-yard stare," and striding on by. But I often do.

This ethical dilemma may be getting more urgent, or at least it feels that way to New York Times metro columnist Clyde Haberman: "Proving this is difficult, to the point of impossible, but the sense here is that panhandling in the subways has increased appreciably in recent months, to the extent that it can come as a surprise when the commute is not interrupted by a request for money. 'I'm seeing it, too,' said … a spokesman for New York City Transit" (preview*/reprint). Haberman's concern here is not exactly altruistic: "Compassion can take a beating when you worry about getting to work on time, or when all you want is to read your newspaper and not have somebody else's problems thrust in your face," he whines. The Chicago City Council feels the same way: last month it passed a ban* on panhandling within 10 feet of bus stops, ATMs and banks.

A more earnest and thoughtful treatment of the pandhandling dilemma came about a year and a half ago the Chicago Tribune's youth-oriented edition, RedEye, when a columnist solicited feedback on what to do and whether to give. The responses didn't lead to a clear policy, but they did serve as useful reflections. As French philosopher Joseph Joubert said, "It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it."

- Out of self-defense I had to decide not to give money to anyone on the street. I believe them all and know that I'm fooled often. Where do you draw a line?
- My giving is religiously based. My faith calls me to 'give to the one who asks you.' From there, I apply wisdom.

- I am more likely to give to someone who is doing something that may be considered 'earning' it. … Street musicians in general garner more donations from me than others.

- The Bible states: 'Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day; teach him how to fish, and he will eat for life.' I look at beggars on the streets that I see every day as not worthy of receiving my money. Why? Because they don't want to learn how to fish. So I refuse to give them a fish every day.
- My 'policy' that I have taken to over the years is this: Every time I give, I get a blessing in return. As the old saying goes, everyone is just one check away from being homeless.

- I do not always have money to give, but I can always acknowledge them.
- Here [they are] braving the cool temperatures, while we sit at a desk all day long to get paid. If my situation is right, I give from my heart.

PLACES & CULTURE

From the New York Times:

AMPALA, Uganda* — There are some distinct advantages, Oyo Nyimba Kabambaiguru Rukidi IV acknowledges, to being a king. … At ceremonies in his main palace in Fort Portal, worshippers get down on their hands and knees in front of him, kiss at his feet and bring him valuable offerings like live goats and sheep. … Uganda is a poor country, so destitute in fact that the average citizen makes not enough in an entire year to afford a plane ticket to see the world. But kings ride business class. King Oyo has been throughout Africa and has made trips to Europe and America as well, meeting a variety of V.I.P.'s in the process. … "My life is very different from most 12-year-olds," said King Oyo, fidgeting with a rubber band tied around his royal wrist and looking both kinglike and kidlike at once.

MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL VOLCANIC MONUMENT, Wash.* — They sit for hours, gazing across a mud-caked valley toward the rumbling mountain. Over the last week, since Mount St. Helens reawakened after almost two decades with a huge plume of steam, thousands have come here from across the West Coast and as far away as Texas. They sleep in nearby hotels or up here in cars, camper-vans and mobile homes and in sleeping bags laid across the rocky soil—all waiting for the earth to reveal its intentions. They have motored up to this mountain carting digital cameras, barbecue grills, coolers, wine, romance novels, telescopes, all in a sort of pilgrimage to the place where, they say, the earth feels more alive—and so do they. … Like so many others up here who seem content to pass entire days staring at the mostly quiet mountain—as active as it looks on television, it really only erupts once in a while, and then for at most an hour at a time—[visitors] said they had come in search of a feeling.

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